NET 2019 part 3 The Greatest Band Ever To Hit The Stage

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

An index to all the episodes in this series can be found here.

‘You may buy the ticket because it has Dylan’s name on it; you will leave having seen one of the greatest bands you will ever see live.’ Tim Sommer

“This is the best band I’ve ever been in, I’ve ever had, man for man. They can whip up anything, they even surprise me.” Dylan 2006, Rolling Stone magazine

Since this series is coming to an end, the next post will be the last, I’d like to pause and acknowledge Dylan’s band, surely one of the greatest bands ever to hit the stage. It is the band that has made Dylan’s achievements in the 21st Century possible. They have been the magic in the mix, the foundation on which Dylan could build the sound he needed for his voice and music. They were the wings he needed to fly. Together they could do anything: 1930’s jump jazz; 1940’s big swing, big band; 1950’s rock ‘n roll, Chicago or New Orleans blues; progressive rock and mood jazz – whatever sound the song, and Dylan’s changing conceptions of his songs, needed.

We find Charlie Sexton on guitar, Tony Garnier on bass, George Receli on drums, Stu Kimball on acoustic guitars and Donnie Herron on pedal steel, lap steel, electric mandolin, banjo, and violin.

Let’s start with the longest-standing member Tony Garnier, who joined Dylan in 1988 and stayed with him to the end. He’s rock solid with the beat, whatever the beat, the band’s anchor and leader. The foundation of the rhythm section, able to play bass guitar, and double bass, either plucked or bowed.

‘Bassist Tony Garnier keeps an eye and an ear on every member of the band, and he feels like the bandleader. He plays over, under, on top of and around Receli, Sexton, Herron, and Dylan, but he especially takes out a thick, greasy laundry marker and underlines Sexton’s quick melodic pops, while at the same time bold-typing every one of Receli’s tom hits.’ I can’t write like Tim Sommer but I agree with him.

It’s Garnier and George Receli, who joined the band in 2002, who make the most powerhouse rhythm section, as you’ll hear. Here’s Tim Sommer on Receli: ‘I have almost no hesitation in saying that George Receli is the best drummer I have seen in at least a decade. He is a robust, adept, and joyfully New Orleans-style player, using the kit as an expressive gateway to centuries of rhythm. He relies almost exclusively on the skins, not the cymbals, simultaneously playing light and atomic. He is always rumbling and rolling, moving steadily like a freight train, hovering mysteriously like a pelican, and working his way around the songs like a late-night detective who listens to a lot of WWOZ and surf music. It’s almost like watching Keith Moon if he had been trained on Rampart Street’.

Again, I can’t match Sommer’s prose, but agree. Receli is not a flashy drummer, and his rhythms are more sophisticated and subtle compared to what came before. ‘I like the drummer I have now, he is one of the best around – Bob Dylan Q&A with Bill Flanagan – 2017.

Receli and Garnier set it up for Charlie Sexton, lead guitarist who rejoined the band in 2009. At, Dylan is asked this question:

‘Charlie Sexton began playing with you for a few years in 1999, and returned to the fold in 2009. What makes him such a special player? It’s as if you can read each other’s minds.’

And Dylan replies: As far as Charlie goes, he can read anybody’s mind … and he can play guitar to beat the band. There aren’t any of my songs that Charlie doesn’t feel part of and he’s always played great with me… He’s not a show-off guitar player, although he can do that if he wants. He’s very restrained in his playing but can be explosive when he wants to be. It’s a classic style of playing. Very old school. He inhabits a song rather than attacking it. He’s always done that with me.

Here’s what Tim Sommers says: ‘‘Sexton, fleet and inventive, changes styles and cultures literally from bar to bar, tossing off insane, hyper-jazz changes, post-punk/pre-Beatles melodic leads, and ripping blues and raunch-hand lines, all without ever making a grimace or stopping for applause. If you want to see someone make a lot of faces and let you know how versatile they are, go see an expert hack like G. E. Smith or Waddy Wachtel. But if you just want to see one of the best electric guitarists in the land inhale everything sweet, spicy, and elegant about American music and exhale it effortlessly, see Charlie Sexton.’ Right on Tim! No rambling solos; very discrete and tasteful.

In 1992 Dylan expanded his band to include a steel guitar, which enabled him to create sounds a four piece band couldn’t. Multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron took that spot in 2005, and is largely responsible for that orchestral sound that gives the impression of a much bigger band. In the videos you can see Herron sitting behind Dylan, watching Dylan’s every move on the piano like a hawk. A multi-instrumentalist, he plays violin, electric mandolin, viola and banjo, and can turn a rock song into a country song by playing these instruments. Sound textures are his specialty. Here’s a cool story from a Concert review May 3rd 2017 in Dublin.

‘The vibe between Bob and steel guitar player Donnie Herron is obviously very important since the move to the Sinatra songs as Donnie is now a key player in those arrangements, it is also very charming, after one song Donnie applauded Bob and in the dark Bob walked over to him and they shook hands, a truly lovely moment that probably went unnoticed, but it was a moment that displayed the love and respect between the singer and a fabulous band that at times sounded like an orchestra.’

Acoustic guitar player Stu Kimball joined the band in 2004 and stayed until 2018. Kimball is hailed by pre-eminent Dylanologist Peter Stone Brown who says: ‘Stu Kimball is a walking catalogue of great guitar licks… [who] knows when and how to use those licks and use them with taste… I’m going to go out on a limb and say Kimball can take his place as one of the top five guitar players to play on-stage with Bob Dylan — easily.’

Here’s a comment from Kimball’s website: ‘Stu’s soulful guitar playing is exceptional in itself, but his ability to understand another artist’s vision — and then help them bring it to life — truly sets him apart. “I always try to play from the heart, to play with soul and conviction,” he says. “I play for the singer and the song, and to help bring their vision to life…Helping artists give their best performances, regardless of the venue — that’s what I love, and that’s what I feel I was born to do.’

On October 11, 2019, the first show of the North American leg of the tour, Dylan introduced two new members of the touring band: drummer Matt Chamberlain, replacing George Receli, and additional guitarist Bob Britt, who had previously played on Time Out Of Mind. Britt replaced Kimball.

Let’s hear this formidable force in action as we continue with the 2019 Setlist, the final handful of songs. Let’s go to New York (Dec 3rd) to hear this upbeat version of ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ sounding like a cross between a 1950’s rocker and garage-band jazz. The music, it’s all about the music!

Thunder on the mountain, rolling like a drum 
Gonna sleep over there, that's where the music coming from
I don't need any guide, I already know the way
Remember this, I'm your servant both night and day

Thunder on the Mountain

That last sentiment, ‘I’m your servant both night and day’ takes us back to the contention of ‘Serve Somebody’ (1979). Doesn’t matter who you are, you end up serving somebody, and it seems to me that Dylan has been serving us, his audience, all the way through. Dylan revamped the lyrics around 2015, which is what we hear on this recording from New York, and fittingly he introduces his band.

Serve Somebody (A)

That’s giving it the old rock ‘n roll treatment. Here it is from Santa Barbara. I think this performance and recording has the edge on New York.

You might even have a name
Or call you nothing at all…

Serve Somebody (B)

Two songs from Tempest (2012) are usually placed near the end of a concert, both complex dramatic monologues, ‘Long and Wasted Years’ and ‘Soon After Midnight.’ The narrator of ‘Long And Wasted Years’ is simultaneously apologetic, wheedling and aggressive. He seems to flirt with the woman while at the same time repudiating her. The narrator of ‘Soon after Midnight’ is revealed to have diabolical intent.

Here’s that song from Santa Barbara, number 16 in the Setlist. A bit of a country feel to this one.  Some nice piano work from Bob.

Soon After Midnight

And ‘Long and Wasted Years’ from Irvine. Perfect vocal from Bob. For my ear, this version is sadder, a little more reflective than in previous years, the character a little more sunk in the self-induced nostalgia of the moment. The song is a series of emotional postures created by all the games he’s playing, because of the games he’s playing. Only in the last line, however, is the depth of his underlying bitterness revealed – ‘So much for tears, so much for those long and wasted years.’

Long and Wasted Years

I don’t know how ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ somehow migrated to the final song of the night. Perhaps Dylan felt his audience didn’t know what it was that was happening, what the new post-2015 Dylan was all about. Or maybe he wanted to leave his audience with one of his famous mid-sixties rock songs, one of the spookiest of the lot. It’s all about alienation, being where you don’t belong – and being decidedly uncool! Or maybe he wanted a chance for a final blast or two of the harmonica and to go out with a flourish. There are lots of maybes with Dylan. What remains is the song. Still as mysterious and powerful as ever, with the Master of Sarcasm at the wheel.

This one’s from Sao Paulo, and must surely count among the great performances of the song. I’ve lost count of ‘best evers’ but this one’s hard to beat.

Thin Man (A)

Except maybe this one from Muncie does beat it. There’s a different mix in the recording, but more than that, it’s a somewhat harder hitting more ecstatic performance. The Muncie audience is fully riled up.

Thin Man (B)

That’s it for this post, but there’s a song missing – ‘Not Dark Yet.’ To hear four stunning performances of the song from 2019, tune in shortly for the final article in this series which has taken us on such a long journey. Don’t miss the finale!

Until then

Kia Ora


  1. Great band yes, but Dylan’s awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the whole of his work, not just that of the 21st century.

  2. Yes and music is included in the Nobel award….
    ie, For creating new poetic expressions within the American song tradition.
    Indeed, separating ballads from poetry sure isn’t easy
    Remember that Dylan wrote and performed more than just “Blowing In The Wind”!

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